Depending on the amount of time that you have to spend in Iceland, there are two popular routes that allow you to see the highlights of the island. The “Ring Road” route would ideally take 10-14 days and would take you around the circumference of the island (we spent 2 weeks driving Iceland’s Ring Road). And the “Golden Circle” route ideally takes a few days, but it is possible to tackle in just one day if you are short on time.
The Golden Circle is a small loop around southern Iceland that begins and ends in Reykjavik. It’s just 150 miles in length (243 kilometers) and has just three specific must-see stops along the way. Read on to learn about the different must-see sites along the Golden Circle as well as the distances in between each and the amount of hiking involved.
We would highly recommend renting a car or motorhome so that you can see the Golden Circle at your own pace. There are several additional stops along the Golden Circle that are worth visiting including the Kerid Crater, Bruarfoss Waterfall, and the Secret Lagoon which is a great alternative to the Blue Lagoon. (Or if you can’t decide between the Blue Lagoon versus the Secret Lagoon, why not visit both!)
There are also many well-organized tours that leave from Reykjavik that will allow you to relax in a comfortable shuttle bus and not have to worry about driving. Enjoy!
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The Top Stops on Iceland’s Golden Circle
Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park
Driving Distance from Reykjavik: 30 miles
Total Drive Time: 45 minutes
Total Hiking Time: 1-2 hours depending on your preference
Thingvellir National Park (the Icelandic spelling is Þingvellir) is the first stop along Iceland’s Golden Circle route. This area is known as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and separate. The plates are being pushed apart by volcanic eruptions at a rate of about 2 centimeters per year. And this spot is the only place in the world where you can actually see the rift above sea level.
A fissure in Thingvellir National Park disrupted an underground spring. This rift is known as Silfra and visitors can actually dive or snorkel in between the tectonic plates where the water is thought to be the clearest in the world. The underwater visibility when snorkeling Silfra is over 320 feet. You’ll need to book a diving or snorkeling tour and they will provide you with a wet or dry suit but keep in mind that the water is still unbelievably cold.
When you enter Thingvellir National Park, you’ll need to park at the Hakio Visitor Center and pay for parking (the price is determined by the number of seats in your car). There is an exhibition in the center that costs an additional 1,000 ISK per adult. The friendly park rangers can provide you with information about the various hikes in the park and the park is also well-signed with maintained trails throughout. It’s an easy walk to pass through the fault lines and enjoy the dramatic landscape.
Be sure to follow the signs to Oxararfoss (Öxaráfoss) Waterfall, it’s a highlight of the park! Also, if you cross to the other side of the park you’ll find a picturesque church and a lake with crystal clear water. It is good luck to toss a coin into the water here and watch as it floats to the bottom.
Geysir Geothermal Area
Driving Distance from Thingvellir National Park: 38 miles
Total Drive Time: 1 hour
Total Hiking Time: 30-45 minutes
Your next stop along Iceland’s Golden Circle route is in the small town of Geysir. It’s called the Geysir Geothermal Area and it is a small but incredibly active area where you’ll get to see bubbling hot springs, boiling mud pits, and even a very active geyser.
From the free parking lot, you’ll enter the Geothermal Area (donations are appreciated but not required) and follow a dirt path around the active areas. The path will take you past the geysers and up to a lookout point where you’ll get a view of the entire area. But beware that the path to the top is very muddy so wear proper footwear.
The largest geyser here, aptly named “Geysir” once had water spouts that reached 550 feet in the air! Unfortunately, it’s been dormant for years but you will be able to witness the other geyser erupt during your visit. Strokkur has smaller spouts, just reaching 50-65 feet in the air, but it erupts every few minutes. You’ll likely see groups of photographers waiting around its edges to capture a photo of an eruption.
Driving Distance from the Geysir Geothermal Area: 6 miles
Total Drive Time: 10 minutes
Total Hiking Time: 20-30 minutes
The third stop along Iceland’s Golden Circle route is the highlight of the loop – the immense Gullfoss Waterfall. The waterfalls are on the best things about Iceland and Gullfoss is arguably the most spectacular waterfall in the country! You’ve most likely seen photos of it while planning your visit. From the top of the falls to the bottom measures 100 feet in total between the two tiers. A massive amount of water flows over this waterfall year-round, peaking at 460 cubic feet of water every second during the summer months!
This river is called the Hvítá River and it is flowing through the Hvítárgljúfur Canyon. As you look down the canyon you’ll see impressive canyon walls rising up on either side of the river below. The area is quite stunning and you’ll be impressed by how close you can actually get to the falls on the well-maintained trail.
There are two parking lots here, one at the top that is near a few souvenir shops and a toilet (the price is 150 ISK per person to use) and a viewpoint that is a must-visit. And there is another lot that is further down and closer to the trail. Neither parking lot has a fee to park.
There are several signs here that tell the story of Gullfoss Waterfall and how it came to be an attraction for all to enjoy. The land here was owned by Tómas Tómasson, a farmer, who refused to sell his land to an English Businessman named Howell. Howell wanted to harness the power of the waterfall to fuel a hydroelectric power plant back in the early 1900s. But Tómasson did agree to lease the land to Howell without realizing that a loophole in the contract allowed for the plant to be constructed.
Tómas’s daughter, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, refused to let the waterfall be used for that purpose. She worked tirelessly to nullify the lease, making countless trips to and from Reykjavik to fight the contract. And in 1929 the waterfall was returned to the hands of the Icelandic people so it can be enjoyed by all today.
The Golden Circle route is actually named after Gullfoss Waterfall. The name “Gullfoss” literally means golden waterfall in Icelandic – hence the name.
Other Attractions in Southern Iceland
There are dozens of amazing things to see and do on the Southern end of the island and if you have extra time in Iceland we would highly recommend checking them out! Read all about the highlights of Southern Iceland to help you in planning your trip!
We hope you have a fantastic journey on Iceland’s Golden Circle!
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